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Bobby McFerrin‘s appearance with Afro Blue last night at the Warner Theatre was the finest concert in the history of the D.C. Jazz Festival.
For disclosure’s sake, I am not qualified to make that statement. I haven’t been to every concert in the history of the festival (nobody has), and I even missed one recent festival (2006) in its entirety. But I am confident that my verdict will be upheld on every appeal. This performance was, from start to finish, a glorious, unqualified triumph.
For starters, if anything, my previous effusions have understated McFerrin’s abilities as a vocalist. By the end of his opening tune (a wordless, nameless piece that perhaps was improvised), he had already done everything I’d credited him with—-and was ready to move on to new tricks. The next, his tune “Baby,” found him handling interlocking rhythms on his own; “Drive” featured an interlude of throat singing, McFerrin emitting two simultaneous pitches; and, in a rendition of The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” an alternation, syllable by syllable, between his high and low singing ranges—-interpolated by bird whistles. In between came Frankie Valli-style falsettos, sublime scat, a Miles Davis croak, and clowning around in perfect operatic affect, both alto and baritone. (Both McFerrin’s parents were opera singers.) He has far, far more talent than any one human being has a right to.
And if Afro-Blue’s billing was second, it was surely a very close second. Roger Treece conducted a 26-piece-strong iteration of the choir, including leader Dr. Connaitre Miller and mouth percussionist David Worm (doing an uncanny impression of a trap set). They had several features of their own (with McFerrin as accompanist); “Messages,” a piece of both religious and secular inspiration, and the closing “Wailers”—-both tracks from McFerrin’s VOCAbuLarieS album—-delivered the evening’s profoundly emotional moments: anxiety, reflection, catharsis, nostalgia, hope, and pure joy. And there were marvelous moments for individuals as well. McFerrin invited members of Afro Blue to perform scat duets, with Reginald Bowens joining him for a magnificent take on Chick Corea’s “Spain” and Miller herself coming down for “Bye Bye Blackbird.”
McFerrin also offered the spare mike to the audience, with a very eager Ken Caldwell taking the stage to join in nailing McFerrin’s second most famous recording, the fourth-season intro to The Cosby Show. That was only one of many bits of audience participation; McFerrin divided the audience into sections at one point, at another designating spots on the stage floor as representing notes and jumping between them as the audience sang.
Then came an awe-inspiring moment, one that at first seemed a joke. “Let’s do some Bach, shall we?” McFerrin asked, to cheers. He mentioned an “Ave Maria” that had been written over Bach’s famous cello prelude, and said “I’ll do the prelude, you all do the ‘Ave Maria.'” Most assumed he was kidding, and McFerrin fueled that impression with laugh lines (“If you’re Jewish, you can sing ‘Oy Vey Maria’…”). But then he began intoning the cello prelude, and from the darkened theater came the high, airy sounds of the “Ave,” so hauntingly beautiful that this writer expected McFerrin to introduce a choir surreptitiously seated in the audience when it ended. He didn’t—-it was a spontaneous and truly magical moment.
The evening was as close to perfection as any I’ve ever seen on stage, in any medium, and even the douchebag in the audience who kept bellowing “ENCORE!” long after it was either funny or potentially effective is forgiven. Meantime, please, God, let someone have recorded it.